Looking for a Crucifixion

Robert Alter

This is a book that makes large claims both for itself and for the documents it presents. ‘The First Complete Translation and Interpretation of 50 Key Documents Withheld for over Thirty-Five Years’, the dust-jacket announces. As a matter of fact, about half these texts have already been published elsewhere, as the New York University Scrolls scholar Lawrence Schiffman has noted, so the rubric would be defensible only if the Eisenman and Wise interpretation were the first to qualify as ‘complete’. Then there is the question of whether many of these really are ‘key’ texts and whether they have been ‘withheld’ or rather, which strikes me as far more likely, left languishing through scholarly indolence. Withholding suggests the deliberate suppression of material that could be ‘explosive’, a favourite adjective of Eisenman and Wise’s. This notion of a scholarly conspiracy, hinted at in the text, has recently been trumpeted by the journalists Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, which is largely a popularisation of Robert Eisenman’s theories. Unsurprisingly, Baigent and Leigh contribute an effusive blurb to this book. Eisenman for his part has been putting himself forward as the embattled champion of a campaign (crowned with success a year ago) to liberate the Scrolls from a scholarly monopoly which, he claims, has kept them from the public on grounds of their dangerous contents, which threaten to subvert accepted theories about Qumran, the sectarian community associated with the Scrolls, as well as cherished notions about Judaism and Christianity.

A legal cloud hangs over The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered: at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco in December 1992, 19 prominent authorities in this field signed a detailed statement accusing the two authors of having appropriated the work of other scholars (which had been circulating at conferences) in their reconstruction of the Hebrew and Aramaic texts. It is important to remember that the texts of the Scrolls are not only full of lacunae and illegible words and phrases but often have to be pieced together out of many scraps of parchment, with no certainty that all the fragments derive from the same manuscript. Eisenman and Wise were quick to counter-attack under the banner of conspiracy. The accusation, they contended, was simply a new strategy of intimidation on the part of the old scholarly cabal, which hoped to maintain its monopoly on the publication and interpretation of the Scrolls.

I am not competent to make a judgment about this matter because I have not had access to any of the allegedly pirated reconstructions. In any case, the conspiracy defence is implausible because the signatories include scholars like Lawrence Schiffman, who was never part of the Scrolls committee and argued strongly for making the unpublished texts generally available. The specificity of the charges, moreover, at least gives one pause. Take, for example, the suggestion that the Eisenman-Wise reconstruction of the so-called MMT document (a legal text of considerable historical importance) was lifted from the work of Elisha Qimron and John Strugnell: ‘It must be a miracle that [the Eisenman-Wise] edition made all the same joins and transitions between fragmentary manuscripts that Strugnell and Qimron made.’ Even allowing for more coincidences and grey areas of textual reconstruction than this black-and-white condemnation will permit, it is hard not to feel some uneasiness about Eisenman and Wise’s repeated assertions of the absolute independence of their work: ‘We have not relied on anyone or any other work, but rather sifted through the entire unpublished corpus, grouping like plates together, identifying all the overlaps, and making all the joins ourselves.’

The central historical thesis of The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered is one that Robert Eisenman has previously spelled out in two monographs: he believes that the Scrolls are not a product of the Essenes, as scholarly consensus would have it; do not derive in part from heterogeneous groups, as a good many scholars think; and do not originate mainly in the first and second centuries BC, as almost everyone in the field has concluded. Rather, these texts are the ideologically and theologically uniform production of a militantly nationalist movement of the first century AD that could be characterised retrospectively (Eisenman and Wise prefer not to use the term) as Jewish Christians. Their leader was in all likelihood James the Just, sometimes referred to as the brother of Jesus. Their arch-enemy was Paul – probably the Preacher of Lies of the Scrolls – who led the believers in Jesus beyond the pale of Jewish law and Jewish national identity. ‘Both movements used the same vocabulary,’ Eisenman and Wise contend, alluding to the supposed Qumran followers of Jesus and their Diaspora opponents, ‘the same scriptural passages as proof texts, similar conceptual contexts; but the one can be characterised as the mirror reversal of the other. While the group in the Judean desert was zealot, nationalistic, engagé, xenophobic and apocalyptic, the overseas one was cosmopolitan, antinomian, pacifistic – in a word, “Paulinised”.’ This theory of Christian origins rooted in fiercely uncompromising Jewish nationalism, purportedly borne out by the texts, repeatedly leads Eisenman and Wise to claim they are dealing with ‘explosive’ material, that ‘the implications are quite startling and far-reaching,’ that what the texts reveal is ‘pivotal for Western civilisation’.

But what evidence is there that the Scrolls have anything at all to do with James, Paul and early Christianity, other than forming a distant background of Jewish sectarian practice and vocabulary on which the first generations of Christians might well have drawn? A strong case to the contrary has been made by the Oxford Scrolls scholar Geza Vermes in a quietly devastating review of the Eisenman/Wise volume in the TLS. Before proceeding to my own difficulties with The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, let me summarise Vermes’s telling objections. Eisenman and Wise assume that the Qumran manuscripts form a single uniform corpus, which is belied by the manifestly heterogeneous character of the sundry texts. They also assume that the texts were produced by a ‘Messianic Movement’ in Palestinian Jewry, though the Scrolls are actually quite sparing in references to a messiah and the New Testament seems much more concerned with messianism than the Qumran corpus does. They construe the warlike imagery of the Scrolls as evidence that the Scroll-writers were zealots bent on armed insurrection, ignoring the palpably metaphoric nature of the language. (Indeed, I would argue that a prominent feature of many of the Scrolls is a kind of intoxication with resounding Hebrew words eerily dissociated from the realm of politics and history.)

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Eisenman and Wise are obliged to date the scrolls to the middle of the first Christian century or their whole thesis collapses. Carbon 14 dating, paleographic analysis and numismatic evidence, however, have all placed the Scrolls a century or two earlier. Having pushed the Israel Department of Antiquities to use a new AMS Carbon 14 technique on the Qumran manuscripts in 1989, Eisenman now finds, as the results do not confirm his thesis, that ‘the process is still in its infancy,’ and paleography and dated coins found at the site are equally rejected as methods subject to erroneous inference. ‘One is finally thrown back,’ the two collaborators explain, ‘on the areas of literary criticism, textual analysis and a sure historical grasp.’ After reading the book, I confess that I have no notion what activity Eisenman and Wise could have in mind when they claim to have undertaken literary criticism. ‘A sure historical grasp’ – something that has evidently eluded previous Scrolls scholars – could only mean reading the first-century Messianic Movement hypothesis into the texts and this is precisely the process that cries out for explanation. Textual analysis will obviously depend on a precise handling of the philological issues with which the texts, when they are at least minimally legible, confront us. On this score, Eisenman and Wise repeatedly show themselves vulnerable.

Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts are all written in a consonantal alphabet, with no indication of vowel-sounds in the text and no punctuation. In order to vocalise a given word properly, the reader has to have a firm grasp of the grammar, syntax and idiomatic patterns of the language. The degree of such understanding will in the first instance be manifest in the way any writer transliterates the Semitic words into the Latin alphabet. Eisenman and Wise offer only occasional transliterations, but these abound in errors. They repeatedly refer to the Leader of the Congregation as Nasi ha-Edah, where the construct form of the initial noun (‘Leader of’) invariably requires that the full vowel be elided into a schwa (Nesi). The same error occurs in their transliteration of Meshiah ha-Zedek, the Messiah of Righteousness, as Mashiah ha-Zedek. They represent ‘fornication’, zenut as zanut, thus making it look like an abstract noun derived from zan, ‘species’, instead of a term derived from an entirely different root meaning ‘to go whoring’. The word for ‘impure’ or ‘polluted’, tam’e, is represented in the grammatically impossible form, tem’a. If the editors are as shaky as this on the grammar and syntactical function of Hebrew words, how can they construe them to establish a text and build a historical argument?

The Preacher of Lies is repeatedly rendered, as Eisenman translated it in an earlier book, as ‘Spouter of Lies’, in order to point towards supposedly baptismal imagery and the figure of Paul. But the term matif, though derived from a root meaning ‘to drip’, had already been firmly established in the Bible as meaning ‘preacher’. ‘Amal, which means ‘suffering’ in Job and ‘effort’ or ‘labour’ in Ecclesiastes, is translated as ‘suffering works’ in order to give it a hint of Christian theology. In one of the documents ‘arelim, ‘uncircumcised’, is duly translated as that, but the commentary claims, actually using quotation-marks, that ‘foreskins’ is the term in the document, evidently seeking to give the text a polemic thrust toward Paul. But ‘arelim is a standard pejorative term for heathens and does not automatically invoke theological issues of circumcisions of the flesh and heart. Finally, tendentiousness is sometimes compounded by downright error. Perhaps the most embarrassing blunder is the assertion that Belial ‘is linguistically related’ to the root bal ‘a, ‘to swallow’. There is no connection at all between the two terms: Belial is a compound formed from beli (‘without’) and ya ‘al (‘worth’).

This combination of tendentiousness and philological uncertainty repeatedly subverts the proposed readings of the texts. The former is illustrated by the odd interpretative twist given to one of the more easily readable texts, a hymn that begins with the words, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, because of all His wonders for ever. Blessed be His name, for He saved the soul of the Poor One.’ As even this snippet suggests, the text is a pastiche of Psalms, where it is a poetic commonplace to praise God for saving the poor, the meek and the humble from the most urgent dangers in life. As though Psalms scarcely existed, Eisenman and Wise work up the language of the poem into eschatological Christianity. Saving is salvation; the meek and humble are the meek and humble of the New Testament; and the ordinary word ebion for ‘poor one’ is a coded term for Ebionites (note the translators’ capitals), the first-century Jewish Christians.

Elsewhere in the texts, groping in the philological dark, Eisenman and Wise profess to find crucifixions. To cite just one instance, which they have sought to make a cause célèbre, one highly cryptic text – and it must be stressed that many of these documents are more fragment than text – contains two lines that are translated as follows: ‘and they put to death the Leader of the Community, the Bran[ch of David ...] / and with woundings, and the (high) priest will command.’ The verb rendered as ‘woundings’ might be cognate with the verb meaning ‘to pierce’ that occurs in the Suffering Servant passage of Deutero-Isaiah, and Eisenman and Wise are happy to seize it as a possible hint of the crucifixion (though they acknowledge the obscurity of the text). But confusions swarm around this supposedly educated guess. The term looks like a plural past participle, ‘wounded ones’, but it should then be read mehulalot, not meholalot, as they claim. The form of the participle, however, is feminine, and what, or to whom, could that possibly refer in context, and how could it mean ‘woundings’? If one vocalises it as meholelot, that actually yields a common Biblical term, ‘dancing girls’, though it is far from clear what that might mean in this gap-ridden context, unless it were an allusion, in the style of the prophets, to a termination of all rituals of rejoicing in some general cataclysm. Then again, the word could also mean ‘women who have been profaned’.

Other egregious examples could be cited, but this one is a perfect microcosm of the method through which the hidden truth of these scraps of ancient Hebrew writing is repeatedly uncovered. A ‘sure historical grasp’ is brought to bear in the reading: this grasp consists of the prior assumption that the texts must have been produced by Christians faithful to Jewish law who clustered around James the Just. The least lexical hint, the merest possibility of an etymological or associative intimation in a word, is then pounced on to confirm the connection with Christian origins. More often than not, the word in question is an ambiguous little shard floating precariously in a sea of lacunae.

We all want to know what these scrolls, by a full millennium the oldest Hebrew manuscripts we possess, tell us about the world at the turn of the Christian era, and about the contexts in which both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism took shape. But now that the Scrolls are at last accessible to all investigators, what is needed above all is painstaking scholarship, free from the distorting pressures of extravagant theories, and patient enough to understand that there are many secrets these frayed and crumbling Scrolls may never reveal.